Chambal's land leveling experiment leads to socio-economic disruption

The ravines of Chambal used to provide multiple livelihood options for its poor and marginal farmers. Leveling of land is triggering conflicts and increasing social inequity

By Padmini Pani
Last Updated: Monday 18 September 2017 | 10:35:50 AM
Illustration: Tarique Aziz
Illustration: Tarique Aziz Illustration: Tarique Aziz

The Chambal region in central India is one of the most densely populated regions in the country. It has a very complex socio-economic structure, where more than 80 per cent of the population is primarily dependent on agriculture. The region’s major lifeline is the Chambal River, where nearly 4,800 sq km land has been affected by severely dissected ravines. There are no major industries in the region and alternative livelihood options are also very limited. Therefore, the dependency on land is very high.

A new trend has emerged over the past decades—large parts of the Chambal ravines are being leveled. During the last 40 years, around 600 sq km of these degraded ravines, locally known as bihads, have been leveled in the Chambal region. The intensity of land leveling has enormously increased over the past decade.

The ravines are among the most vulnerable regions in the country. Faced with land erosion and gully formation that shrinks their lands, farmers are opting for various coping mechanisms. These include contour bunding, channelling, gully path modifications, changing cropping patterns, and most importantly, land leveling. With increasing availability of heavy machinery, land leveling has expanded phenomenally.

But during a field survey, I found many farmers disillusioned about the efficacy of land leveling. “Often the leveled lands are unproductive and leveling is a costly affair,” said a middle-aged farmer who had borrowed heavily to hire earth removers to level a portion of his land. Except for a few well-to-do farmers with pump-sets, agriculture is entirely rainfed. The irrigated leveled lands are productive and profitable only in the initial years. However, regular irrigation in the leveled land creates further erosion as rills and small gullies develop inside the agricultural fields. Managing leveled land is highly labour-intensive, as the land needs constant maintenance by refilling, compressing, bunding, and fencing. It costs Rs 800 per hour to rent an earth remover to break the soil mounds. The choice of land to level is based on considerations such as proximity and accessibility of the land. Such ad-hocism often leads to increase in the cost of land management in the leveled land.

Disturbing an ecosystem

Bihads (ravines) are part of an integrated ecosystem. Flattening not only destroys the ecology, but also loosens the top soil, making it prone to erosion and susceptible to further gullying. It takes a year to level a land and to start cultivation. When there is erratic rainfall, the situation worsens, as the heavy and continuous rain initiates headward erosion— erosion at the origin of a stream channel. Severe erosion and gully encroachments are more prominent in leveled lands. Even the untouched ravine lands are engulfed by the gully headward erosion in a very short period of time.

Land leveling has implications for the overall socio-economic situation in the region. Given the high costs of land-leveling, it is not surprising that only people with resources or access to cash can afford to level the land and keep it in a cultivable state. Also, maintaining the leveled land requires constant supervision and monitoring, and only rich farmers can afford maintenance.

One of the major impacts of large-scale leveling is the disappearance of common lands, which include grazing lands. Leveling bihads has given an opportunity to wealthy farmers to privatise commons. During our survey, we found that many landless people, who earlier used the bihads to graze their cattle, could no longer do so. This has led to a decline in the livestock population, and the organic links between rainfed agriculture and livestock rearing have collapsed. Due to this, many landless and marginal farmers are migrating to nearby cities in search of work.

Earlier, wild fruits like tenti and berr were collected by poor people to make pickles for household consumption as well as to sell in nearby markets. Clearing of land has wiped out indigenous trees. The capture and the leveling of bihads by rich farmers, powerful locals and other influential people have gender dimensions as well. As collecting fuelwood from bihads has become difficult, the use of crop straw has increased, particularly among poorer households. During our group discussions, we found that a large number of women had developed health problems due to indoor air pollution caused by the use of crop straw. This has implications for their children’s health as well.

Such changes have led to a further disintegration of the local economy and society, leading to rising social inequality and conflicts across the region, which has a long history of oppression and crime. On the other hand, due to the destruction of the natural habitats wild animals regularly stray into agricultural fields and damage standing crops. Some farmers have stopped growing crops like arhar (pigeon pea or green pea), which has a longer growing season and requires protection for a longer period. A number of farmers shared their agony and said they have abandoned their lands due to this problem.

At the same time, renting machinery for land leveling has emerged as a business opportunity for powerful people. There are also plans to use these lands for industrialisation. Such plans need to be carefully scrutinised for their long-term implications for this fragile ecology. In geomorphological terms, this area is not in an equilibrium state yet; it is still under the control of geological erosional processes. Further disturbance will cause more soil loss, and the Chambal River and its tributaries will receive a huge amount of sediments during the rainy season. The entire river ecosystem will be severely affected in the coming years, and this will undoubtedly lead to further flooding. A more scientific, systematic and sensitive planning for conservation and development of this ecological region is the need of the hour. The ecological impact of leveling badlands will not only result in the destruction of unique landscapes, it will also disturb social harmony, increase conflicts and cause distress migration. A more holistic approach towards the ravines of Chambal will also minimise the effects of soil erosion. The value of every landscape cannot be reduced to its value in economic terms. (The author is assistant professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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